Afghan President Hamid Karzai has seriously dented the credibility of one of
the noblest institutions of his country's history and culture. A large number
of Afghans today would hope that the institution of the loya jirga (grand
tribal assembly) survives Karzai's presidency.
There are very few Afghan institutions remaining after the systematic
vandalization of society and its native traditions through the past three
decades of civil war, foreign interference and blood-soaked chaos.
Loya jirgas are called rarely - fewer than 20 have been held in the past
300 years of Afghan history. And they were probably never called to sanctify
the bonding of an Afghan ruler with a foreign power. Karzai has violated a
sacrosanct tradition. There could be
a price to pay.
The 2,300-strong four-day jirga that concluded in Kabul on Saturday was
packed with "tribal leaders and other community leaders" whom Karzai nominated.
According to the New York Times:
From the beginning, the jirga was
called into question by both its timing - it seemed to undercut an active
session of parliament - and its composition, in which about 90% of the
delegates were handpicked by Mr Karzai or his aides.
Important Afghan figures, including many members of parliament, prominent civic
leaders and political opposition, responded by boycotting the meeting. That
undermined the traditional weight that jirgas are given in Afghan
Karzai's nominees dutifully handed to him their
approval for his decision to ink a strategic partnership with the United States
that allows American military bases after most foreign troops leave in 2014.
The jirga resolution noted that the strategic partnership would be for
10 years and could be extended if necessary.
Put plainly, Karzai can now claim he has a mandate from the Afghan nation even
if parliament were to refuse to ratify the Afghan-US strategic pact.
More questions than answers
Karzai promptly declared, "I agree with your decisions and the resolution read
out today has been a comprehensive decision that will be represented and
The funny side is that Karzai did not even share with the jirga the
terms of the agreement, since Washington insisted it might not be a good idea
to publicize them. Indeed, this political theater was not entirely Karzai's
Washington wanted Karzai to secure a mandate from a loya jirga before
the pact is inked at the Bonn Conference II on December 5 to which 90 countries
have been invited.
The US expectation is that the loya jirga's "mandate" and the presence
of the "international community" at Bonn will give the strategic pact a degree
of legitimacy that irate regional powers - Russia, Iran and Pakistan, in
particular - may find difficult to question.
Washington is also sensing (rightly so) that Afghan opinion would militate
against foreign occupation. Significantly, the recently formed National Front,
which includes heavyweights like former vice president Ahmad Zia Massoud
(brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud), Jumbish leader Abdur Rashid Dostum
and Hezb-e-Wahdat chief Muhammad Mohaqiq with a power base among the Tajiks,
Uzbek and Hazara communities, called Karzai's move to convene a loya jirga
"unconstitutional" and boycotted it.
The administration of US President Barack Obama burnt its fingers in Iraq where
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wouldn't or couldn't steamroll public opinion
into accepting an extended US presence after formal withdrawal at the end of
Again, regional opposition to the US military bases is much stronger with
regard to Afghanistan. Tehran has been a trenchant critic of Karzai's proposed
pact. Pakistan has made no bones that it disfavors US military bases in
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov questioned American intentions in a
lengthy statement in Moscow on Thursday. He seemed to have had the ongoing jirga
It is not yet clear how the planned 2014 withdrawal from
Afghanistan, determined, we are told, by the completion of the anti-terrorist
operation there, correlates with the plans to set up large US military bases in
We put these questions to our American partners, and discussed them with the
leadership of Afghanistan. So far there are more questions than answers -
especially with the information that US colleagues want to expand their military
presence in Central Asian countries.
Since the beginning of the operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, we have
been constantly told that the foreign presence in Afghanistan and the use of
the transit facilities in Central Asia are only required to remove the specific
terrorist threat, which manifested itself on September 11, 2001, and that no
long-term geopolitical calculation is hidden behind this. We will
assume that the principles referred to in the beginning of the operation must
be respected in full. (Emphasis added.)
With the Taliban
repeatedly and categorically stating their opposition to Karzai's pact with
Washington and influential sections of Afghan (non-Taliban) opinion and key
regional powers questioning the move, what does the Afghan president hope to
In a nutshell, he hopes to secure American consent to his continuing in power
in the period beyond 2014. But Karzai will find the going very tough now that
his peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban has run aground.
His equations with the Pakistani leadership continue to deteriorate. Pakistan's
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar last week publicly aired annoyance with the
Karzai government. The recent Turkish move to mediate apparently met with no
success. Karzai had a frosty meeting last week with Pakistan Prime Minister
Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of a regional South Asian summit in Male.
Once a lion, ever a lion
To be sure, the most critical factor on the chessboard is that Pakistan views
the Bonn Conference with a singular lack of enthusiasm. Without Pakistan's
whole-hearted support, the Bonn process won't have much meaning. German Foreign
Minister Guido Westerwelle visited Islamabad last week and met army chief
General Ashfaq Kiani.
However, an all-consuming political crisis is threatening to unfold in Pakistan
- stemming from disclosures that a few months ago the civilian government of
President Asif Ali Zardari sought Washington's help to crack down on the
These are early days, but two things are becoming apparent. One, the political
crisis is bound to strengthen the Pakistani military vis-a-vis a civilian
government that is perceived to be selling out to the US.
Two, Washington figures at the epicenter of the ensuing civil-military rift in
Pakistan and this is bound to weaken the US's capacity to influence the
leadership in Islamabad in the near term.
The high probability is that the Pakistani leadership will not budge from its
position as regards the Afghan settlement. The US can have its security pact
with Karzai, but it means nothing if the peace process can't get underway. The
more time passes, the more untenable Karzai's position would become.
Karzai would know that Washington has a poor opinion of him and that there is
no dearth of Afghan politicians who could fill his shoes in 2014 and equally
sub-serve American interests.
Washington couldn't have felt comfortable with Karzai's "fiery" speech at the loya
jirga on Wednesday when he posed as a staunch nationalist who is at
loggerheads with the Americans. For establishing his nationalistic credentials,
Karzai said words that have since become the butt of jokes in the Kabul bazaar:
if old, sick and feeble, a lion is still a lion. Other animals in the jungle
are afraid of even a sick lion and stay away from him. We are lions, the United
States should treat us as lions, and we want nothing less than that. We
therefore are prepared to enter into a strategic agreement between a lion and
A lion hates a stranger entering his home; a lion dislikes a stranger
trespassing its space, a lion does not want his offspring taken away at night.
The lion does not allow parallel structures to operate, the lion is the king of
his territory and he governs his own territory. The lion has nothing to do with
others in the jungle.
Then he added:
They [US presence]
bring us money; train our soldiers and police, and provide security for the
home of the lion. The lion does not have leisure time to do all these things.
They should protect his surroundings but should not touch the lion's home. They
should protect the four boundaries of the jungle.
acutely self-conscious that the Afghan people would not take kindly to a ruler
who is so obviously the puppet of a foreign power. Shuja Shah was put on the
throne by the British in 1839 out of sheer gratitude for concluding Kabul's
first and only "strategic pact" with an imperial power, but could not remain in
power when the British left.
The saving grace is, perhaps, that Karzai is intuitive. He chose to make the
short trip from his presidential palace to the venue of the jirga by
helicopter. On the conclusion of the meeting on Saturday, when he returned
home, two additional helicopters were also deployed as decoys.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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